"This Assignment Doesn't Matter” Disease… And Some Cures

You might have heard these common refrains:

“Why are we doing this?”

“This is a waste of time!”

“This doesn’t matter!”

These are all classic signs of…

“This Assignment Doesn't Matter” disease.

It’s a fairly common “disease,” of course. But, if left unchecked, it can lead to real depression, anxiety, frustration, and burnout—for students and teachers alike.

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Let’s admit it: there might be some standards that seem irrelevant to your students’ needs.

Especially for our older students, some of the material we're mandated to teach might seem to have little consequence to our students and their real-world issues. Before too long, even you might start to believe that “This assignment doesn't matter!”

But how can we possibly make every assignment matter?

It might seem impossible.

But here’s the answer:

It starts as we imagine them as adults.

I know—they’re not adults yet. But you're working to grow them into citizens who can function to the best of their abilities. You’re empowering them to need as little assistance as possible in the future. You’re empowering them to work within the demands of society.

You’re empowering them to lead better lives.

Every assignment needs to be about these principles.

Of course, when you're exhausted, and just trying to get by, it's hard to see that. And the kids feel the same way, of course.

That's why you’ll need a bank of life-saving medicine to cure “This Assignment Doesn't Matter” disease.

Let’s head on over to the Teacher’s Pharmacy now. Check out this powerful stuff—you’re going to use it to make your framework.

Let’s begin:

Right now, you’re going to think about the trouble spots.

Which specific deficits will lead to difficulties down the road for your students, as they grow into adult life?  

Let’s start with the basic functionalities...

  • Knowing how to:

    • Stay on schedule.

    • Be on time and not miss important appointments.

    • Maintain a consistent sleeping and eating schedule.

    • Turn in important documents on time.

  • Knowing how to:

    • Function with others.

    • Endear oneself to others (rather than alienate them).

    • Properly ask for help.

    • Express oneself clearly.

  • Knowing how to:

Now, let's move on to some of the higher level functionalities:

Job Skills

Some of our students may not be able to work in a traditional unassisted capacity in the future. However, all of our students will need certain skills in order to attain (and keep) gainful employment.

These skills include:

  • Following directions - Listening to what a boss and/or client says, and asking clarifying questions.

  • Persistence. Not giving up just because a task is hard or seems immediately tedious. Rarely is any job easy.

  • Presentation. Maintaining an attitude and demeanor in alignment with the expectations of the job.

Make it Relevant

You can teach every assignment through the lens of one or more of these real-life skills. Choose a basic functionality (above) or job skill (above) to highlight on any assignment that seems prone to “This Assignment Doesn’t Matter” disease. Then, create a rubric which awards points for one or more of these traits.

For example, on your rubric for a pre-algebra problem set (particularly prone to “This Assignment Doesn’t Matter disease”), you might want to include the category of Persistence.

Here’s an example points guide for a “Persistence in Pre-Algebra” rubric:

4: Consistently put forth effort to independently reference model problems and solve examples.

3: Mostly put forth effort to reference model problems and solve examples.

2: Rarely put forth effort to reference model problems and solve examples.

1: Relied on complete teacher assistance to solve problems.

0: Did not make attempts at task.

As you introduce this assignment, draw particular attention to this column on the rubric.

Now, let’s use another example:

Before students work in groups, you can create a portion of the rubric which assesses clear communication their ideas (as above, in the basic functionality section). Give your students strategies and scaffolds, such as question or conversation stems.

Also, be sure to give them ideas of things to say when things don’t go as planned.

Let’s pretend that you’ve put your students in a group to create models of dinosaurs together. You can create a rubric which includes a category for clear communication.

Points would be earned as follows:

4: Clearly communicated with group members about all steps of the dinosaur-making process, at all times.

3: Mostly communicated with group members clearly about the steps of the dinosaur-making process, though required occasional help.

2: Sometimes communicated clearly with group members about the steps of the dinosaur-making process, though group members were sometimes confused about intentions.

1: Barely communicated with group members about the dinosaur-making process, or did so in a confusing way.

Rubrics and strategy-based instruction both work as powerful medicine. Deploy them to combat apathy and helplessness.

Of course, no “medicine” will be effective for everyone. But it can make a difference that you’ll notice.

Any assignment can turn into something bigger--something with more meaning for the implication of our students’ future adult lives. “This Assignment Doesn’t Matter” disease might not have an easy cure, but the more we invest students in the repeated teaching of these basic skills, the more our assignments will become a part of a grand plan, rather than just something to “get through.”